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REVIEW: Big Stars and impressive budget propel ‘Red Swan’ through its hazy first two episodes

Fortunately, the two lead stars are a completely arresting watch.

Two big stars – Kim Ha Neul and Jung Ji Hoon (more popularly known as Rain) – are some of the biggest and most established names in Korean entertainment. Working together is definitely big news, and you can see the Disney+ produced K-Drama has the budget to celebrate this artistic collaboration. ‘Red Swan,’ based on its first two episodes, is poised as an action/romance/thriller as Kim Ha Neul plays Oh Wan Soo, the wife of a chaebol heir whose high-profile global charities has put her in the crosshairs of terrorist groups. While on an important event in Manila, she is attacked and is rescued by a highly trained, former policeman, Seo Do Yoon (Jung Ji Hoon), who ends up joining her security detail. What complicates things is that it seems Do Yoon is following a trail of the murder of his friends which leads him straight into the chaebol family that Oh Wan Soo is married into. Adding fuel to the fire, Wan Soo has had it with her adulterous husband and may be attracted to her brand-new bodyguard.

‘Red Swan,’ written by Choi Yoon Jung and directed by Park Hong-kyun, is fast-paced and glitzy. It prefers to take short cuts in character building and development and is more intent in showing off its cast and its huge budget. It relies on archetypes and tropes to help set up the characters and their place in this world while impressing upon us the high stakes world of this reality. Oh Wan Soo is an impressive woman. Her foundation, The Now Foundation, has done what appears to be immeasurable good for the world. So much so, that she’s being targeted by Isis. She is unfazed, though, but what is more surprising is the way by which her husband’s family reacts. 

Her mother-in-law, as early as episode one, is already being poised to take the mantle of the drama’s main antagonist, or one of them, at the very least. She’s an abrasive woman who is fond of shouting and throwing things around. She’s the typical feisty, rich, and sinister mother-in-law who looks down on our protagonist and will definitely get in her way. Oh Wan Soo’s husband, Kim Yong-guk (Jung Gyu-Woon), doesn’t get to show much of any layers other than his dismissive affair that’s revealed by the second episode but there might be more to him than meets the eye.

The break-neck speed by which the story unfolds makes it difficult for the creative team to juggle its storylines. It awkwardly juggles between Oh Wan Soo and Seo Do Yoon, whose storylines begin very far away from each other that when the show jumps from one to the other, it doesn’t quite make sense. Do Yoon is in Manila trying to find clues to the murder of a friend, also from the police force. While searching for it in Manila, he comes across Oh Wan Soo as she is attacked in Makati and the story finally comes together.

There are a lot of issues plaguing the first two episodes of ‘Red Swan.’ The most apparent is the way by which it depicts Manila. Sure, the drone shots that establish location was taken in the city but it’s shots of a commercial space that is meant to be Makati looks either somewhere in McKinley Hill (not a place I’m familiar with) or a completely different location altogether. It doesn’t help that all the crowd extras are primarily white or East Asian looking. It doesn’t look or feel like Makati at all (though it is nice that we are depicted as such a clean, orderly place). The storyline feels rushed to try and set up this world early to try and get the two main characters together and to start the romantic storyline up and running but also amping up the feel of dread and danger. It’s quite a lot to handle and the direction and writing isn’t holding everything up in this regard.


Fortunately, the two lead stars are a completely arresting watch. Kim Ha Neul adds a certain dignity to Oh Wan Soo that makes her a fascinating character study. She’s tired of all the BS and it seems she’s lost all track of what is keeping her moving forward. When Seo Do Yoon comes into her life, she gazes into him trying to decode him and discover what he is about. It’s that look that brings about the passion in this show. Jung Ji Hoon has a gait and a posture of a leading man. He has such a strong presence that even if the scenes play out so typically like any action series I’ve seen before, his swagger hits differently that it doesn’t get boring.

Hopefully, after all the stumbling around and trying to put all the story elements into place, the show will pick up and find its rhythm and pace because its stars can’t carry the whole show solely on their shoulders for the rest of the eight episodes to follow.

My Rating:

Red Swan is now streaming on Disney+. Watch it here.

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